The undisputed best way to travel IME is by booking an extra seat for your instrument. With plane tickets to the continent costing so little this is a great approach. Nailed flew over to Ireland and we booked three extra seats for two guitars and bass, it worked out costing £70 between four of us for all the seats, and the instruments never left our hands. Obviously be careful going through security - put cables and any tools/string cutters/polish etc in your checked baggage. With Ryanair, the extra seats were only £10 each whereas checking in a music instrument bigger than a violin was £25 per instrument. Also taking the guitar onboard protects your fragile hold weight allowance, which on budget flights is usually around 20KG per person. My lightest bass is my bolt-on Spector, which weighs 11kg in it's case with no pedals, cables, or straps - ,my Korean Spector is closer to 14KG as the case is slightly bigger. Your cases don't have to be flight cases, you can take a gigbag if you like.
An added bonus is that usually, the plane staff will sit you right at the front of the plane as due to emergency requirements the biggest, loose items need to be up front. This means you get a free "upgrade" to better leg room and get to watch the snooty weekend businessmen trudge past you on a Sunday morning flight to the battery chicken stalls that the world refers to as "mid-aircraft".
However, buying an extra seat just sometimes isn't cost effective, and you have to check in. In that case, here's my packing advice:
1. ONLY put the instrument in there if possible, however if there isn't someone with you taking checked baggage then feel free to put all your crap in the case, pedals, pliers, etc etc. all the security risks that can't be taken in the cabin.
2. Buy a case with a lock, and use it. Padlocks are OK, combination padlocks better.
3. Gaffa tape over the clasps, at least four times around the case per clasp. Use the stickiest tape you've got and press it down firmly. Tape over this tape 4 times with Fragile tape.
4. But a strap with a combination clasp on it, as strong as you can afford, thread this under the case handle and lock.
At this point it's useful to point out that none of this will stop baggage handlers getting into your luggage, but it will deter them. Security "checks" of baggage are generally unnecessary as X-ray machines pickup most threats. If they try and get into your case, they're usually stealing.
When putting the instrument in the case I like to wrap bubble wrap around the body neck and headstock, and lay a double layer of bubble under the instrument and a single layer on top. It'll be hard to close the case but the guitar won't move inside the case, which is what causes most damage, and if the wood is fairly thin it will bulk out the internals and if anything heavy lands on your case and cracks it, the pressure should force the wood out and stop moisture etc getting in.
CHECK IN AT OVERSIZE BAGGAGE, EVEN IF YOU DON'T HAVE TO. Prague airport had massive conveyors in the terminal, but we went to oversize baggage anyway. Oversize is usually dealt with last, which means it's last in the hold but first out - doesn't have 200 bags lying on top of it. Also leads nicely to...
Inspect the instrument IN BAGGAGE COLLECTION. Take it off the conveyor, and start opening it. The Nazi's in airport security haven't banned you carrying keys yet so use them to cut the tape and unlock and locks. IF YOU LEAVE THE BAGGAGE CLAIM WITHOUT CHECKING IT FIRST ANY LIABILITY IS FORFEIT BY THE AIRLINE. Even your travel insurance will try and wriggle out of it, if you bought any.
If the instrument is damaged, which it shouldn't be, you have to make a damage report in-situ. There should be airport staff who can bring a member of your airline staff down to you and take a formal report. Don't leave the baggage area if at all possible, and if you do, leave the instrument there with a member of staff. Any time the item is unattended or leaves the baggage area is a chance for them to dodge their responsibility.
Think that about covers it...more text than I thought!
Edited by Dan_Nailed, 13 February 2009 - 06:31 PM.